Mother Catherine Seals And The Temple Of The Innocent Blood

As you walked through the mud and dirt streets in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans in the 1920s you may have come upon a massive, wooden-walled compound looming over Charbonnet Street near Bayou Bienvenue.

Inside you would have found hundreds of adherents to Mother Catherine Seals, the Black founder of one of the largest religious movements of the early 20th century. Parrots squawked about, alleycats were underfoot and a resident donkey had the run of the grounds. A goat ambled among the chickens pecking the turf.

Today the Temple of the Innocent Blood is largely forgotten but one hundred years ago it was both famed and a migration point for the more adventurous journalists of the day.

Nanny Cowans was a teenage girl from Hustonville, Kentucky who moved to New Orleans as a teenage bride at the dawn of the 20th century.

The Temple of the Innocent Blood in New Orleans 9th Ward neighborhood was her creation as she transcended into her Mother Catherine Seals persona.

Her birth date has been estimated as ranging from 1874 to 1887. Home births in Kentucky continued well into the 20th century and record-keeping in that long ago-era was scant.

“Oh, I was pert when I was young. I joined all the churches but none of them used to like me, cause I used to teach them. I wasn’t studying about sweet Jesus then, I belonged to the world.

Mother Leafy Anderson founded the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Church near Catherine’s home on Jackson Avenue in the 3rd Ward, and Seals began training in Spirituality there whilst earning a living as a cook.

But Seals and Leafy clashed over dress code matters and while Seals quit in a huff she was still enthralled with the movement.

Brother Isaiah was also known as John Cudney

It’s 1919 and Brother Isaiah (John Cudney,) a well-bearded, spiritual healer, has made his way down the Mississippi River and tied off his houseboat near where Calhoun Street ends at the river. Isaiah is famous in his trade and soon hundreds of people begin flocking to him so he can attend to their various ailments and maladies.

Mother Catherine, fresh off a severe beating by her husband, has been in the queue for quite some time before she makes her way to the front of the line. Noting her dark skin color, Brother Isaiah turns her away. Seals wails and laments at this treatment.

“But he told me he wasn’t healing colored folks that day, and I was so sick I fainted. And when I come to I knelt down and I say, Sweet Jesus ain’t we a people? Ain’t you brought us out the house of bondage just like you brought the Israelites? And I promised Sweet Jesus right then if he would teach me how to heal I would heal everybody I don’t care what kind they are.”

Soon enough Seals’ entreaty to her Sweet Jesus was answered in the affirmative.

She was now a healer herself.

And Seals followed up on her promise. She drew a focus on healing young, impoverished Black girls who found themselves impregnated and lost in the world. She would take them in, feed them, clothe them, give them medical attention and take them under her wing as her young charges.

Sadly this was an unusual occurrence in that era of New Orleans and the rest of the US for that matter.

Mother Catherine would go into deep trance states as she communed with spirits. It was during one of these fugues that she learned that Sweet Jesus was not from Bethlehem but instead revealed himself as a native New Orleanian.

The Temple of the Innocent Blood, flanked by four streets: N. Dorgenois, Charbonnet, N. Rocheblave, and Lamanche.

Soon Seals found herself operating under an imperative to build a “manger” to care for the so-called “innocent blood” of the world, and to do so in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. The compound would be flanked by four streets: N. Dorgenois, Charbonnet, N. Rocheblave, and Lamanche.

Mother Catherine Seals, using donations given to her by supplicants whom had been healed by her divine touch, paid $4000 for the city block and construction of The Manger (over $60k in today’s money)

The wooden walls – 20 feet tall – of the mini-city were painted white and the interior revealed a sight that no less a writer than Zora Neale Hurston called “barbaric splendor”

Cabins dotted the grounds within the soaring walls and inside them lived the formerly homeless, the tubercular, orphans of all stripes, the fallen and desolate – and especially – young women who had been cast onto the rocks by society.

A sign near the entrance stated, “Mother Catherine is a holy spirit and must not be disturbed

A US Census Report from 1930 listed the address of the compound as 2420 Charbonnet Street.

The Times-Picayune newspaper sent a reporter to the compound: “Out beyond St. Claude Avenue near the St. Bernard Parish line stands the holy tabernacle of the mystic set…the white palisades enclosing the Manger are visible…four high walls with the refuge house standing in the courtyard…above the edge of the high walls towers a cross…over all waves a white flag with the insignia Manger in red letters.”

What a sight that must have been. Unfortunately this magnificent creation has long since crumbled into the earth and a recent visit to the site found only a handful of homes amidst vast brambles of Chinese tallow, crepe myrtle, black willow and golden rain trees,

Rabbits, egrets, shrikes, pelicans, owls, and hawks were plentiful amongst Southern cut grass, and giant ragweed. Mother nature is at her most fertile here in the Lower 9th Ward.

Oxalis, oleander and lantana were plentiful

The death of Mother Catherine Seals

Nanny Cowans aka Mother Catherine fell ill in 1930 and announced to her congregation, “My time is up.” She made plans to return to her native Kentucky and to be accompanied by two virgins; Ruth Johnson and Pearl Cie. Such is the life of a spiritualist. She would pass on August 11th, 1930, in downtown Lexington.

A train would carry her body home to New Orleans.

Upon return to New Orleans she was eulogized in that most Louisianan fashion via a boisterous funerary second line said to have been attended by thousands.

“The wild thumping of jazz rhythms mated with the somber beat of the religious tunes . . . people moaning, praying, crying, low whispering, subdued boasting,” wrote Harnett Kane in an account for The New Orleans Item.

The Second Line began in a pounding rain storm then – just as Seals had prophesied; as the procession neared the St Claude bridge the deluge ceased and a brilliant sun broke out. The crowd experienced rapture.

By 1940 the Manger, the Temple and the attendant grounds had been sold by Mother Catherine Seals’ sole heir, Mother Rita. The congregation had survived the Great Depression only to falter at the finish line.

The wood-frame building in Lexington, Kentucky where Nanny Cowans aka Mother Catherine Seals perished

Sources:

Time magazine: Religion: Physicking Priestess

Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches More Than Conjurers By Margarita Simon Guillory

The Spiritual Churches of New Orleans by Claude Jacobs

Down By The Riverside by Larry Murphy

City of a Million Dreams by Jason Berry https://the-eye.eu/public/Books/Bibliotik/C/City%20of%20a%20Million%20Dreams%20-%20Jason%20Berry.pdf page 235

Notable Black American Women by Jessie Carney Smith

  1. Mother Catherine Seals is featured in a “Secret Sounds” podcast episode titled #38 – The Black Hawk Chant. The podcast is one of a thoroughly researched series devoted to outsider musicians/mystics. There is also an episode on Exuma/The Obeah Man who appeared at the N.O. Jazz & Heritage Festival many times.

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